School Trustees Responses
All schools taking part in this project forbade cannabis use at school or during school hours. Use of alcohol or tobacco was also forbidden. However, not all of the schools had a specific policy for the management of students caught with cannabis, and in such cases management was based on the policy for general disciplinary issues. In two cases, our request that the school be involved in this research prompted the establishment or revision of the schools drugs policy. In another case, the research coincided with a review of policy and the interview process was considered helpful in clarifying issues.
Although schools had to consider each case individually, in all but one school the usual course of management for students caught with cannabis was for the principal to immediately suspend those involved. Suspension was usually indefinite and, as was the requirement, these cases then came before the board to consider and decide on ongoing management.
There were a number of ways in which cannabis use or possession came to the attention of the teachers/principal In some situations the students were caught outright. In others they were approached after information from other students or parents was given to the principal or a teacher. When other students had informed teachers, there was the difficulty of ensuring the students were rewarded for their behaviour without putting them in an embarrassing or difficult situation with their peers for 'telling tales'. Reporting on one such incident, a respondent stated:
It was very carefully done. No-one was ever told the identity of the kids who came in but they were acknowledged. They found some way to give them a special certificate to recognise the fact that they had done this sort of thing without naming what they had done. They said these kids .... must be rewarded because they have taken responsibility for their school.
One respondent arranged for all staff at the school to attend a session about cannabis at which they were shown samples. The aim of this session was to ensure that all teachers were able to identify cannabis and signs of use so that those teachers who did report possession or use by students were not implicating themselves as apparent users.
The initial steps:
Although differences occurred in the strategies or approaches used for subsequent management of students, all but one of the schools taking part in this study suspended students for involvement with cannabis in the first instance. Even boards which were strongly opposed to the continued suspension/expulsion of students nevertheless accepted that students be suspended temporarily initially. For the purposes of this study then a distinction needs to be made between an initial (or temporary) suspension which usually lasted no longer than 7 days and an extended or continued suspension which could last for weeks or months or go on indefinitely, being akin to an expulsion.
The one school which had not immediately suspended students for cannabis involvement reported the incident had occurred just prior to the interview and that it was the schools first. In line with the general philosophy of the school, the incident was dealt with in a constructive rather than punitive way by considering it a health and life-chances issue in the first instance. Rather than focusing on and accusing a small group of individuals, a larger `at-risk group of students were identified, all of whom had had some link with the cannabis incident or those directly involved. These students and their families/whanau were invited to attend a seminar on cannabis given by a member of the Drugs Squad. In a letter sent to parents it was made clear that the students were not being accused of drug use but they were considered `at risk. In addition, the school offered additional help to those who needed it in the way of guidance or counselling. All students and their families were made aware, however, that drug use in the school would not be tolerated and that any further infringement of this rule would result in immediate suspension and a disciplinary hearing before the Board. Parental response to this approach was extremely positive.
In those schools where the students were immediately suspended by the principal, the students parents were notified, given an explanation of the incident and asked to take their child home. The students were then not allowed back to school and were required, with their parents/whanau, to attend the disciplinary hearing with the Board of Trustees at which their future would be decided. Parents were given a written report about the incident before this meeting and were advised that they could bring an advocate if they wanted. In addition, school guidance counselling services were offered to students should they need them.
Although the use and possession of cannabis is illegal, no legal action ensued from the incidents. The Youth Aid section of the Police were called in some cases, but it was felt that they could do little more than the schools were doing. However, some schools invited either the Police or a member of the Drugs Squad to address those students involved about the consequences of cannabis use. One school involved the Police to establish that the substance was in fact cannabis before proceeding with suspension.
The Board of Trustees Disciplinary Hearing:
All the respondents interviewed indicated that, when a student was suspended in the first instance by the principal, they were aware of their legal obligation under the Education Act 1989 to meet with them and their family/whanau within a specified period of time and to give them a fair hearing. They received a detailed report of the incident from the principal at least 24 hours before the meeting and met together as a board just prior to meeting with the student in order to discuss the case. Three main options were open to the board: to consider the process to date sufficient to prevent a recurrence of the behaviour and to lift the suspension; to reinstate the student with certain conditions; or to expel or indefinitely suspend the student.
When a number of students were suspended together, they and their family/whanau were usually given the option of meeting with the board individually or collectively (on a marae, if requested). Some boards met with them together initially, then with each family separately. Two respondents related incidents where a joint meeting of all students and their families had occurred but had not worked very well and the cases were not adequately dealt with until each was seen individually. One of the other advantages of seeing students individually was that they were not constrained by a need to impress their peers.
Boards needed to be convinced that what was reported to have happened actually happened and this depended on an admission from the student. Some board members commented that if the student denied their involvement, the board had to give them the benefit of the doubt. Since the boards role was not a legal one, board members did not want to go to great lengths to prove or disprove that particular students were involved. Instead they relied on the student's integrity and the stories of other students involved to ascertain who was involved. One respondent said,
However, one respondent commented that this can lead to some difficulties in situations where, despite strong indications that they had been involved with cannabis, a student refuses to acknowledge it. She gave an example in which her board felt that they could not punish harshly those students who had confessed and been very honest about their involvement when another student, who they strongly suspected of being involved, was not punished at all because he would not admit to being involved.
In general, respondents indicated that their board took its responsibilities very seriously, that it wanted to do what was best for the student and the school and was aware that its decision could have a profound impact on the students life. Some stressed that an important part of the disciplinary hearing was to try to obtain an understanding of the students life situation and what may have caused them to act as they had. They also impressed upon students that their actions had consequences for which they must take responsibility.
All respondents were aware of the need to inform students that they could bring advocate(s) to the meeting with the board, and it appeared that students and their families often did so. One respondent commented that a good advocate who represented the students interests by building on their positive qualities could facilitate a favourable outcome for the student.
Three respondents commented that the involvement of an advocate who took an adversarial position did not necessarily make the process easier or fairer. The adversarial approach was perceived to be obstructive and antagonistic to the more collaborative or inclusive approach taken by these boards.
The process of coming to a decision about the students future was often time-consuming because the different views of board members had to be considered and a consensus had to be reached. However, in general respondents indicated that they were happy with the processes they undertook and that board members were prepared to put in the time to ensure that the final decision was one that they all found acceptable.
Terms of reinstatement:
The decision to reinstate a student, rather than extend their suspension indefinitely or expel, depended on the particular circumstances of the case, the previous behaviour of the student and the general philosophy of the school. Where a student was reinstated, conditions were usually imposed. The conditions set by boards ranged from those which emphasised the health needs of the student to those which were strictly punitive. Some schools instituted both types of conditions.
Conditions of reinstatement which primarily focused on the wellbeing of the student included the requirement to attend a drug education programme or a drug rehabilitation or, doing a project on the dangers of drugs or attending guidance counselling with the school counsellor. One school had a scheme in which students identified as `at risk for general behavioural problems were assigned a case manager, and recommended that students reinstated after cannabis incidents join this scheme. The aim of these approaches was to ensure that the students received both the knowledge and support they needed to promote their educational and physical well being. Some schools restricted these conditions to `good students who had made a `mistake, while others also used them for those students who had more general behavioural problems.
Some schools took a more punitive approach to the issue, although stopping short of further suspension/expulsion. Conditions of reinstatement which were of a punitive nature included detentions, withdrawal of privileges and community service. Separation from ones peers was also a punishment although in some cases this intervention was used more to remove the student from adverse peer influences. Community service, either inside the school or in the local community, was commonly mentioned as a condition of reinstatement. The number of hours of service was stipulated and this had to be undertaken in the student's own time. If it was within the school, it was usually done during breaks or after school. This had the added benefit of preventing the student mixing with his/her friends and being tempted to re-offend for the duration of the punishment. If the community service was done outside the school, it was essential that it was able to be well monitored by a responsible adult. Some schools required written contracts, signed by the student, a parent and the principal, under which the student promised to abide by certain rules and undertake certain tasks for a stated period of time. This was then monitored by staff. One school in an area with perceived high levels of cannabis use in the community insisted that the Youth Aid branch of the local Police monitor those students who had conditional reinstatement.
When a student was reinstated, all the schools were adamant that this was not to be seen as a soft option. Rather, it was a warning that any further offending would be taken very seriously and possibly result in suspension/expulsion.
Respondents reported that the parents of children who were reinstated were very grateful to the school and the board for the processes undertaken. It seemed that parents were supportive of firm management of their children, but were grateful that this did not extend to suspension/expulsion. In fact, some respondents reported that, following such decisions, the school received phone calls from parents expressing their gratitude and praising the way in which their child had been dealt with. One intermediate school which was very public with its processes also received calls from parents of other students praising the boards management of the incident. However, one respondent from a liberal school reported that parental response to their reinstating students was sometimes mixed, with both expressions of gratitude for the process used and blame because the school had exposed their child to the drug in the first place.
The decision to extend suspension or expel:
Some schools took a strong moral stand on all cannabis incidents believing that the most appropriate action was extended suspension/expulsion. Others chose this option in cases which they considered to be particularly serious. If the board's decision was indefinite suspension until the student's 16th birthday, the school was required to find the student another school. The principal usually took on this responsibility and it appeared that there were cooperative relations on such matters between principals in the same geographical area. Sometimes neither staff nor students were aware that a new student who had been accepted by the principal had been suspended from another school. Schools were entitled to refuse a student who had been suspended in the first instance, but if a school was not found for the student within a reasonable period of time, the Ministry of Education intervened and could require a school to take the student. Because of the initial right of refusal, however, finding another school could be a delicate process. Several respondents referred to the Activity Centre or Metropolitan School as useful last resorts for students caught with cannabis who had also been disciplined frequently for general behavioural problems and who were difficult to place elsewhere. Some expressed concern about anecdotal comments that these schools existence might be in jeopardy because of their unconventional approach to education.
When a board was deciding whether to extend suspension or not, the seriousness of the incident was a consideration. For example, it was more likely that a person supplying cannabis to others would have their suspension extended than one who was caught simply possessing or using. The act of supplying cannabis, even if no money was involved, meant that the student was considered to be endangering other students well-being. The students past record was also taken into account. If they had a history of bad behaviour, the cannabis incident might be considered the last straw.
In some cases, board members saw extending suspension indefinitely or expelling the student as in the students interest because it enabled them to break out of a peer group or a situation which was not good for them and to start anew. In reference to a student who had brought cannabis to school for others, one respondent said:
Alternatively, the decision may have been made in the interests of other students. This was particularly so when the student was known to have supplied cannabis or to have a history of disruptive behaviour.
Even when expulsion was the outcome, some boards felt it necessary to work through the issues with the student, rather than simply off- load the student.
The decisions faced by the board were not taken lightly and several dilemmas encountered while making these decisions were mentioned.
The interests of the student versus the interests of the school:
A commonly mentioned dilemma was trying to find a balance between what was in the best interests of the student and what was in the best interests of the school or of other students within the school. This involved weighing up the message given to society and other students that drugs would not be tolerated in school, versus making sure that the educational future of the student was not jeopardised.
One respondent, whose board was in the process of deciding the future of a bright student who had supplied cannabis to other students, stated:
Another whose school took a fairly firm stand on cannabis stated:
When asked what the board then does in that situation, he replied:
Another consideration which added to boards decision-making dilemmas and difficulties was how their decisions might affect the already heavy workload of teachers. Given the demands already on teachers to undertake social and disciplinary responsibilities over and above their teaching responsibilities, some boards expressed reluctance to place too much extra pressure on them by reinstating students with conditions which required a lot of monitoring.
Avoiding passing on the problem to other schools:
Some respondents were concerned that suspension/expulsion should not be used to transfer problems onto other schools. They were aware that this did not necessarily serve the student or the new school well.
Both intermediate school respondents felt that it was important to be very firm with students caught with cannabis because it would be more readily available to them at secondary school. However, they wanted to deal with the issue internally and did not see passing it on to another school to be the solution. One respondent from an intermediate school stated:
Attracting students to the school:
Some schools were concerned that their involvement in cannabis issues might mean that they would not be able to attract new students to the school and that if their rolls dropped they could lose staff, since staffing levels each year are based on the number of students enrolled. This meant that they had to be seen to be taking a firm line because some parents would be wary of sending their children to schools that were known to have drugs.
An intermediate school which provided manual skills programmes for students from other schools also had its reputation to protect.
Going public about the incident:
Concern about the reputation of the school was an issue in trying to decide whether to be public about the incidents. Some schools felt it was important to bring the issue out into the open to avoid rumour and speculation. This was seen as a positive gesture in that it signalled acknowledgement of the problem and an openness in dealing with it. However, it also ran the risk of media attention which branded the school as one with drug problems.
One respondent commented that there was little media coverage of the positive ways in which schools were dealing with cannabis, and this meant that those schools that were dealing with it well were not visible to the public.
Use in the community:
Another point made was that, because cannabis use was common in the wider community and, in some cases, within the students own home, it was unfair or ineffective to severely punish the individual child.
On the other hand, while acknowledging this view, one respondent believed that, because cannabis use was against the law, the student needed to face the consequences.
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